Ashton stays exiled despite run of form

Date published: May 23 2016

Ten tries in eight games since his return from suspension hasn’t been enough for Chris Ashton to force his way back into England’s plans.

That run of form was expected to be enough to get Ashton on the plane to Australia given how he was in the frame for selection prior to his ten-week suspension ahead of the Six Nations.

Away he went to work his tail off during those weeks when he couldn’t play, watching England march to a Grand Slam in the Six Nations and helpless to aid Saracens in their own dominant run to the top of the Premiership.

Mark McCall and the Saracens coaching staff couldn’t have asked for more from him on his return and twice in last Saturday’s Premiership semi-final win over Leicester he showed the sharpness that has become his trademark – the first try stemming from his ability to accelerate and cut, the second all about his eye for a chance and pure speed to catch Leicester napping.

And yet leaving him out of the 32-man squad was an “easy call”, in the words of Eddie Jones at Sunday’s announcement.

Two areas appear to have caught him out. Ashton at 29 is far from over the hill and yet the potential that Jones sees in Marland Yarde, 24, despite a few years having drifted off the England radar, has been enough for him to push Ashton out of the picture, along with Bath’s Semesa Rokoduguni.

“I always go back to the New Zealand game that England nearly won (on tour in 2014), when Marland scored that try when he ran over the top of Richie McCaw. If a kid can do that, he’s got potential,” was the explanation from Jones, recalling a moment many may have forgotten.

Back to Ashton and his work in defence still hangs over his reputation, overbearing enough to put his try-scoring exploits into the shade.

He has improved his tackling and positioning but not enough it seems to convince Jones that he can be relied on. According to Opta, Ashton missed no tackles in the Champions Cup final win over Racing or in the semi-final victory against Leicester.

It’s close to two years since Ashton’s last Test appearance but in that time while his international record of 19 tries in 39 matches has begun to gather dust, a recall never seemed as improbable as it does now.

Ashton in the eyes and words of Eddie Jones is no longer in the top three wingers in English rugby, a group that including Yarde currently has an average age of 23.

Call-ups to larger training squads may follow, but for now there is no room it seems for Ashton under Jones to break into the matchday squad bar injury or a dramatic loss of form by one of Yarde, Anthony Watson or Jack Nowell.

He therefore finds himself at a pivotal moment of his career having tasted domestic and European success with Saracens and coming to the end of his fourth season at Allianz Park.

A Top 14 payday with England off the radar may be hard to turn down, with his former wing partner David Strettle making a similar decision last season after Saracens’ Premiership success when he moved to Clermont.

There’s no doubting Ashton’s hunger to play for England again. He said it was “killing him” to miss out on the Six Nations last year, but his chances of doing so again are fading. If the purple patch can’t break him back in, it’s hard to see what can.

by Ben Coles